Monday, July 15, 2013

The 9th of Av, or Why I don't mourn the Temple

As you know, my son’s birthday is in July. Last year we sent out invitations to his bunkmates for a typical kindergartener’s birthday bash—pizza and ice cream cake at a moon-bounce place. One of the responses I got was from a parent who wanted to make sure I knew that we had scheduled Elishai’s birthday on Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, a major fast day, commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. While I think there was good intention in that email, there was an element of ‘gotcha!’ in it as well. What rabbi would schedule a kid’s birthday party on Tisha B’av?  I replied that we did, in fact, know, and would understand if his child didn’t attend. 

I was thinking of this story again this week. Tisha B’av is this Tuesday, and I’ve seen all kinds of stuff from the Reform movement about the day and how to recognize and commemorate it, which surprised me. I guess I just didn’t think that Tisha B’Av was a day that we as a movement engaged in. Personally, I won’t be commemorating it. I won’t be reciting Lamentations, as beautiful as the trope may be, and I won’t be fasting. Not because I forgot, or out of liturgical or ritual laziness. My lack of observance is on purpose, and with reason. 

One reason is that I don’t support the theology behind it. That may sound like a minor matter, something very abstract, but I believe that it’s more serious than just some academic matter. You see, most people think it commemorates the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth, first by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE, then by the Romans in the first century. In fact, it commemorates the destruction of the Temple, place of animal sacrifice and symbol of a hierarchical Judaism. I don’t mourn the Temple’s destruction. Do you want Temple sacrifice back? Do you want your relationship with God to be predicated on killing things, or to be that patronizing? I mean, barbecue is delicious, but do you find nourishment for the soul in wanting the return to such practice? Not only that, but let’s talk about those who want a return to the Temple? First, elements of the settler movement, that harass Palestinians and stymie the peace process. Then there’s the Ultra-Orthodox Jews who refuse to integrate into Israeli society, don’t even recognize it as a Jewish state, harass their own community members for joining the army, and just this past week, as they have for years, created a mob-scene to block Women of The Wall from praying at the Kotel. Do you want to be associated with those folks, who are interested in an undemocratic Israel and an unegalitarian Judaism? Me neither.  
As I said, there are those, including Reform Jews, who want to validate the practice for a liberal audience. Some want to see it as a metaphor for the problems that plague Israel or Jews in North America. Others see it as a kind of performance art: One rabbi recently wrote: “For centuries, we have re-enacted the experience of witnessing this destruction in order to maintain a visceral connection to the physical place itself.” And truth be told, I have seen the 9th of Av celebrated at Camp in a very unconventional fashion that worked as a powerful teaching tool for those kids about loss, connection, and community. But I will tell you that even in that moment there was some ambivalence as to whether we should acknowledge the day at all. We certainly didn’t have the kids fast. 

So in a progressive setting, if the 9th of Av is a metaphor, what would that metaphor mean? Agonizing over Jewish independence? We have a sovereign state of Israel, who without a doubt has it’s threats—external and internal—but is also strong, sophisticated, modern, and progressive. No, it’s not Sweden on the Mediterranean, but it’s also doing pretty well for itself. Do we need pain to connect to a thriving Jewish State? Do we need to reenact destruction to work against an imagined end of Judaism as we know it? Do we need more liturgical or ritual opportunities to shry gavult over how we’re doing, or our co-religionists are doing elsewhere? Or is this another opportunity for us to do what we’re already good at doing, in the words of Al Vorspan, “Start Worrying: Details to Follow”? 

Again, this isn’t to say that there aren’t challenges; I’m not so Pollyanna to think that we aren’t at a crossroads as a people. However, the challenges require thoughtful action, not nostalgia for a past none of us want. And within those challenges are opportunities to create meaningful Jewish community and engaging Jewish experiences. And I think we as a people are simply very good at—and well-practiced in—freaking out. Part of Lamentations read: ““Panic and pitfall are our lot Death and destruction. My eyes shed streams or water Over the ruin of my poor people.” We’re good at panic and pitfall; the challenges before us call us to be attentive, optimistic, and inclusive, and if we don’t get better at that, then we really will have a reason to cry. But ours is a theology of empowerment, of autonomy, of active engagement in the world and with each other. How does Tisha B’av fit into that, except in a way that is trivial or superficial? 

Theology matters, metaphors matter, and rituals matter. But some theologies, rituals and metaphors can’t be redeemed. I want to rejoice in a sovereign state of Israel old enough to be a grandparent, and tackle the challenges of egalitarianism, peace and security head-on. I want to recognize that there is, as Kohelet writes, a time to mourn, and a time to rejoice, and not over-emphasize the former over the latter. And I want to recognize that some rituals served their purpose, and now should fall away. The rabbis teach us that, before the fall of the Temple, the 9th of Av was the happiest of days. Perhaps it’s time to return to that, and, to quote Rabbi Danny Syme, rejoice in a Judaism that continues to flourish and thrive. Amen.


  1. Was there for the sermon, outstanding reasoning as always. The following day I schlepped to Baltimore's Beth Tfiloh, a modern Orthodox congregation and among my very favorite places to daven. The senior Rabbi was away. I attended the main service which did not have the Aliyah Sound Bites that annoy me so at my own congregation. There was a parallel service, both mechitza and traditional, which concluded at 11:15, then we met for a common D'var Torah by the assistant Rabbi. He presented a well known passage of several sages walking past the ruins and seeing foxes running from the debris. Most mourned the replacement of the Kohen Gadol with animals except for Rabbi Akiva who judged this to be the start of redemption. The Rabbi then presented commentaries regarding post-Tisha B'Av assessments for the 10th of Av, using commentaries from the Middle Ages. Most agreed with you that if redemption occurs at all it will be a passive process in due time. But for the present, the best replacement is g'melut hasidim which the Temple was designed to promote.

    So why do we still have Sinat Chinam? That gets asked periodically with fingers pointing to its destructive nature. But you can also make a case that having Sinat Chinam is better than not having Sinat Chinam. Imagine Women of the Wall being at the mercy of their antagonists with no recourse. For decades our Federations and some of our synagogues have had macher swoops with the erroneous assumption that having Achdus is an end point which allows those in charge to trample upon those not in charge. The recourse that victims have often comes in the form of Sinat Chinam. There is a popular book called Jewish Megatrends that I started reading this week. Rabbi Schwarz and other commentators in the book remark that the number of Federation donors has declined from 900,000 to half that in 20 years. They attribute it to non-replacement of older participants with younger ones. Only part true. To get numbers of that magnitude there needs to be a certain amount of leadership generated attrition, a form of silent Sinat Chinam where people vote with their feet in response to unfavorable experience. I wonder how favorable the experience with the Temple really was.

  2. "The rabbis teach us that, before the fall of the Temple, the 9th of Av was the happiest of days."
    Do you mean the 15th of Av?
    Because the rabbis teach us that "There were no holidays so joyous for Israel as the Fifteenth of Av (Tu b'Av)."

    This article is insulting.